You didn’t read about this in the mainstream media, and Peter Mansbridge didn’t appear on screen “live from Red Deer.” Just the same, there is movement, gentle and passionate, elusive as smoke and solid as rock. Canadian history is being made.
The day was June 30. We were at the Remembering the Children ceremony, the children being the 325 students who attended the Red Deer Indian Industrial School between 1893 and 1919. This government school was run by the Methodists, forebears of the United Church.
We gathered in a tent on the lawn of Sunnybrook United in Red Deer, Alta. Most of the 125 people were Cree. I sat with my friend Rev. Emmanuel Gatera, who is working on his doctorate in trauma healing at St. Stephen’s College in Edmonton. He is from Rwanda, which suffered a war and genocide in 1994. His presence made the event more poignant for me.
This was the third ceremony to remember and to learn about this school. It felt different from the first commemoration, held near the school site on the banks of the Red Deer River. Then, the name of every student was read, commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
were present, and there was a lot of weeping. The grave markers of some of the children (some bearing only hand-painted initials) were ceremonially carried away from the site, now a farmer’s field. The site was then blessed by First Nations elders and prayed over by United Church ministers.
This year, one grave marker was displayed throughout the ceremony. There were prayers, speeches, encouragement for the journey ahead. Charles Wood, who had attended the Roman Catholic Blue Quills Residential School near Edmonton, was master of ceremonies.
Ninety-one-year-old Bill McLean, a descendant of Chief Walking Buffalo from the Stoney Nation in Morley, Alta., shared his wisdom for healing with a light touch and deep compassion. He’d worked as a rodeo cowboy in his youth and joked that he’d had to trade in his horse for a new vehicle, a walker.
Some speakers were descendants of the students, others were government and church officials, and it was notable that there was overlap in several instances. (Victor Favel, for example, is an employee of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada and also the grandson of a student; Lyle Keewatin-Richards, who first raised the question of the school burial ground, is a Cree member of Sunnybrook United.) Other speakers included chiefs, government officials and Muriel Stanley Venne of the Métis Nation. The United Church was represented by Rev. Cecile Fausak and Very Rev. Bill Phipps, who spoke of the two United Church apologies
to First Nations people, in 1986 and 1998.
The work of reconciliation and healing is slow, but I feel more hopeful each year. This time the atmosphere felt more relaxed. There’s still sadness, but it seems we’ve passed through the stage of shock now. Before her remarks, Fausak spoke for all of us, I think, when she said, “I wish I didn’t have to do this work.”
Before the feast, Jarrid Poitras, president of the Remembering the Children Society, read a poem by filmmaker Rebeka Tabobondung of Wasauksing First Nation. It ends, “and we will gently whisper the circle back / and it will be old and it will be new.”
We have so much to gain as we write this old and new chapter of Canadian history.
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